Construction Starts Post Solid Gain in August

Total construction starts rose 19% in August to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $793.3 billion. Gains were seen in all three major building sectors: nonresidential building starts rose 16% and residential building climbed 12%, while nonbuilding construction jumped 40% over the month. While large projects certainly influenced the August gains, removing those projects would still have resulted in a gain for the month, according to a report from Dodge Data & Analytics.

Year-to-date through the first eight months of the year, starts were 14% lower than in the same period in 2019. Nonresidential starts were 24% lower and nonbuilding starts were down 20%, but residential starts were down less than 1%. For the 12 months ending August 2020, total construction starts declined 6% from the 12 months ending August 2019. Nonresidential building starts fell 13% and nonbuilding starts were 9% lower in the 12 months ending August 2020, while residential building starts rose 3%.

“Construction starts continue to make up ground following the nadir in activity in April,” says Richard Branch, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics. “Residential and commercial construction are driving the gains, while the public side of building construction is proving to be a drag on growth. The regional pattern has also evened out with gains in starts seen in every region but the Midwest in August—somewhat muting the concern over the potential impact of rising COVID-19 cases in the South and West. The nascent recovery in starts, however, will face challenges as summer turns to fall. The expiration of enhanced unemployment insurance benefits and small business loans that were provided in the CARES Act, the budget crises facing state and local governments, and the impending expiration of the FAST Act on September 30 will all have a dampening effect on starts.”

Nonresidential building starts in August were also aided by large projects in the office and manufacturing sectors, leading to an increase of 16% to $236.7 million. Removing these projects, however, would not have prevented an increase in nonresidential building starts. Commercial starts rose 36% and manufacturing starts soared 201%. Institutional starts, however, fell 7% despite small gains in education and healthcare.

The largest nonresidential building project started in August was the $1.0 billion Facebook Data Center (Project Woolhawk) in Gallatin, Tenn. Also starting during the month was the $740 million Texas Instruments Fabrication Plant in Richardson, Texas, and a $700 million mixed-use office and hotel project in Boston.

On a year-to-date basis, total nonresidential building starts were 24% lower than in the first eight months of 2019. Institutional building starts dropped 16%, while commercial starts slid 27% and manufacturing starts were 47% lower than a year earlier. Over the 12 months ending August 2020, total nonresidential building starts were down 13% from the 12 months ending in August 2019. Commercial starts were 16% lower, institutional starts were down 13% and manufacturing starts slipped 1%.

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